You are here

Part II: The Immanence of the Transcendent

Lecture XIV: Finitude and Evil

All theistic schemes of thought are confronted with one great and apparently insoluble difficulty—the fact of evil. The difficulty presented by this fact is felt with acuteness varying directly with the completeness of conviction that God is good. If reality consists only of happenings, void of all purpose and tending to no goal, it may then be impossible to understand it at all, but at least there is then no special difficulty about the occurrences described as evil. Whatever causal processes are recognised to exist are sufficient to account for these events, as for others. The very fact that evil is felt to be a problem even by many of those who avow no theistic faith, is evidence of the natural tendency of the mind to seek some explanation of the world in other terms than those of purely efficient causation. But as soon as that principle is pronounced insufficient, there is no alternative recourse save to the principle of purpose; and if that be adopted the difficulty presented by evil at once appears.

It must always be with anxiety that a philosopher approaches this part of his subject. So many promising schemes have failed at this point. Either the evil element in experience is so directly referred to the divine initiative as to preclude the attribution of perfect goodness to God, or it is so marked off from His activity as to involve the intolerable difficulties of ultimate dualism; or else it is itself so minimised that the resultant account of experience seems to be wholly detached from actuality. No extant solution of this triangular problem is altogether satisfactory. We have to recognise to the full the reality, and the radical badness and wrongness, of evil; the universal sovereignty of God; and His perfect goodness. It is not likely that our attempt will be successful where so many advanced by far more competent guides have failed. None the less it must be made, and its failure may contribute to the success of another.1

Evil is Negative Value. The essential condition of Positive Value has been found to be the recognition by mind of itself, or of what is akin to itself, in its object. We note in passing, and reserve for future discussion, the apparent subjectivism and relativism of this view, only remarking that the real good and evil are what appear such to the Divine Mind or to a finite mind that is fulfilling its divine vocation.

When Mind in its aesthetic activity of contemplation finds what is strange and alien, that is the experience of Ugliness. When Mind in its scientific activity of analysis and synthesis finds itself bewildered and baffled by its environment, or when it acquiesces in an apparent recognition of its own principle in that environment, to which other facts than those under observation are recalcitrant, that is the experience of Ignorance or Error. When Mind in its ethical activity of determining personal relationships either fails to find its counterpart, or finds it as something akin, indeed, but hostile, that is the experience of Moral Evil. For in the ethical sphere where the relevant relationship is that of person to person there are two kinds of Evil—the absence of the kinship sought, and the perversion of this so that the very condition of good is become a fount of evil.

Now as Moral Good—the Good of personal relationships—is alone absolutely good, so we find that it stands in a special relation to all forms of Evil including Moral Evil. For Truth and Beauty can both be subordinated to Moral Evil, and the Evil is all the worse because of the prostitution to its service of what intrinsically is good; thus the good of physical Beauty can be prostituted to the service of lust, and the good of extensive Knowledge to the service of selfish ambition. But Moral Good cannot be subordinated to any form of Evil. When it occurs in the midst of an evil context it shines like a jewel and makes the evil whole which includes it the less evil for its presence.

In each main sphere Evil can be subordinated to its corresponding Good. Error subserves Truth when the explanation of its occurrence illustrates, as a well-founded explanation must, the rational order of the whole within which the error occurred. The climax of Art is found when the great artist takes the repellent and hostile elements in experience and, welding them into the completeness of his harmony, makes them—while still in their isolation horrifying—constituent and contributory elements of the sublime.

But the inherent predominance of Good over Evil is nowhere so clear as in the moral and spiritual sphere. The presence of what is morally good in a process or occurrence which as a whole is evil cannot add to that evil, nor can the good become in any sense an evil thing. But the presence of evil can enhance the excellence of what on the whole is good, and the event or act which in isolation is evil can be itself an integral and contributing part of a whole which, as a whole, is good.2 To cite once more the supreme instance; the crucifixion of Christ is (in the Christian scheme) supremely bad when taken in isolation, but when taken as part of the whole scheme of which it is the pivot, it is supremely good.

As we set ourselves to consider what may be the place of evil in a world regarded as divinely created and divinely governed, it is worth while to remind ourselves at the outset of this possible subordination of evil to good. Indeed, if that were all that could be said, it would be sufficient to save Theism in principle, supposing that on other grounds it could establish itself. But that would leave us still without any real understanding of the place of evil in experience, and it is this which we must now try to reach.

We have two questions to consider, which may or may not turn out to be identical—the cause of evil, and the justification of its occurrence. First we must enquire how evil finds a place in the world-process as we have conceived it, and secondly, whether, when its origin is so understood, its occurrence is compatible with the belief that the world is created and ruled by a God who is both infinite Goodness and infinite Power.3

In the first stages of its existence the world exhibits neither life nor consciousness. At a certain point of its development life appears in rudimentary vegetable form. This life is void of consciousness. But again at a certain point in its development, life exhibits consciousness. Consciousness supervenes upon an organic existence which has already established a habitual routine. That routine includes the process in which one organism becomes food for another. If there is no consciousness, that cannot be called evil. If the organism that becomes the food of another is conscious, there is perhaps already evil in that combination of facts. But this seems less than certain; for the merely conscious organism lives in the present, and an extremely constricted present, so that consciousness perishes almost if not quite simultaneously with the occurrence of the event which in combination with continued consciousness would be evil. At this level then there is perhaps a very little evil, perhaps none at all. But once more at a certain stage in development consciousness becomes self-consciousness. The organism is now not only conscious of its environment as offering occasions for satisfying appetite, or for flight from danger. It is now conscious also of itself as distinct from its environment, and of possible states of itself as distinct from its actual state. It is, in Green’s phrase, a self-distinguishing and self-seeking consciousness. Its time-span is increased. The “present” is now for it a longer stretch of clock-time, and it has memory of a past and anticipation of a future. Events now have value for it, and it is become a centre of value-judgements.

As we look back we see that at any stage which we choose to isolate, prior to the human, there was a possible balance or harmony comprising the best possible good at that stage. It was in principle possible that each self-conscious organism should pursue its own interest in such ways that the good of life should on the whole at least outweigh the evil. There seems to be no doubt that life in the jungle is, on balance, good. The larger beasts must kill the smaller to maintain themselves; but though this involves for the smaller beasts moments of terror, it seems clear from the accounts of naturalists that even for them enjoyment of life is the prevailing tone or colour of experience. And though there is already some problem concerning the occurrence of any evil at all, yet at this level there is reason to be satisfied with a balance of good over evil. That is not all that we have to say about it. But it is all that arises at this stage; and at this stage it is enough. For the stage at which evil may be taken up into good and made part of its own excellence is the stage of definite moral values. If life at the animal stage is good on the whole, then as a whole it is good, and no question of its justification arises. If later developments appear to offer a justification of the subordinate element of evil which it contains, that is to be welcomed in the interest of a completely rational interpretation of the world; but even without it we can safely pronounce that the best understanding we can frame of the animal world offers no obstacle to a reasonable Theism.

It is with the advent of man that the problem assumes proportions so overwhelming. Mind, as known in man, early achieves a certain detachment from its basis in the physical organism by its use of “free ideas”. But it actually holds these ideas by means of its capacity as imagination. The mind cannot think without either percept or image.4 The use of the Figure in Geometry is more than a convenience; it is a necessity. But it need not be drawn on paper or on a blackboard. It can be constructed in imagination. The mind is not strictly thinking about the Figure—the triangle ABC, for example; it is thinking about the universal triangle; but it can only do this by means of a particular triangle, taking care to avoid reference to any peculiarity of the particular triangle. Now imagination, just because it exists to offer particular instances of general qualities, offers to desire the stimulus which the appropriate physical objects offer to appetite. Hence comes a great, and in principle unlimited, expansion of the life of desire, which initially functions only as expressive of the vital needs of the organism or as stimulated by appropriate objects in the physical environment. Desire as so expanded may take the form of aspiration or of lust. No doubt it always takes in fact both forms at first, and one way of expressing the purpose of educational discipline is to say that it aims at directing the whole force of desire away from lust towards aspiration. When this process is corrective rather than preventive it is commonly called “sublimation”.

From these considerations it is clear that so far as Evil is a product of exaggerated or misdirected desire, the condition of its occurrence is identical with the condition that makes possible all the higher ranges of human life. The ancient Hebrews had ample justification for tracing sin to the “evil imagination”. But to imagination also must be traced the possibility of all forms of distinctively human excellence. All depends on how it is used. To take up the thought of our earlier discussion of Freedom, all depends on the direction of attention;5 and this is largely within the mind’s own control.

But this gives us rather the mechanism of evil as known in men than its mainspring. If the mind can control the direction of its attention, why does it so often give it a bad direction? It is easy to answer by attributing this to perversion or sin in the mind. But that hardly helps us. What is the source and nature of this perversion of mind? That any man ever chose evil, knowing it to be evil for him, is to me quite incredible. He may say, under an impulse of defiance, “Evil, be thou my good”; but his pursuit of it is then due to the fact that he has adopted it as his good and not because it is evil. To desire evil strictly for its own sake is impossible. To hate the human race so as to desire as good for one’s self what is evil for all others, and even because it is evil for all others, is possible; but this evil for others is still desired as supposedly good for him who desires it.

In other words, a man is governed by what effectively appears good to him, which we shall henceforth term “the apparent good”. And what appears good depends on the condition of his mind. It is not a reflective judgement with which we are now concerned. No one, probably, thinks cruelty good—certainly not as a general proposition, and hardly in a particular instance. Yet men do cruel things; they do them because at the moment those things appear good through gratification of some lust for self-assertion, or through their power to allay some panic fear. A man’s character determines his apparent good at any moment; his apparent good determines his conduct.

If this process is working out to a bad result it is because the apparent good is not the real good. Sometimes it is possible to change the apparent good by setting beside it some presentation of the real good. There are many who habitually gain control of evil desires by turning their attention to the Figure of Christ, in contrast with which the object of the evil desire appears no longer good but abhorrent. Sometimes again it is possible to think out the full implication of what presents itself as good, and to see that taken in its real completeness it is bad. But as a rule the real good will be impotent against the apparent good unless it can be made equally apparent; and this means that it must be presented to the mind in some form apprehensible by the senses or in imagination. A man may know as a matter of general principle that stealing is not only wrong but bad—bad, that is, for him. But if he sufficiently desires an object that is within his grasp, he may none the less take it unless there is also before him the sorrow of the person robbed, or the penalty which he is likely to bring upon himself. Most of us have been able to master our covetousness of possessions sufficiently to be free from these temptations. The force of temptation is more felt in the region of bodily appetites, or of personal resentments, or of professional or commercial ambition, or of political sentiment. But the principle is the same. There may be a genuine apprehension of the true good in conceptual form; but this will not prevail against the vivid attraction of an apparent good unless it is presented in a form that is as effectively apparent. Imagination is usually the connecting link between thought and volition, and if the apparent good is to be changed otherwise than by conversion of the character, it must chiefly be through the occupation of the imagination with the things—and the relevant things—that are “pure, honourable and of good report.”

But we have not yet come to the heart of the problem. Why is there a difference between the apparent and the real good? or, to put the question more usefully, why are we such that what appears to us good is other than the real good? For there is here an unquestionable bias or tendency to evil in human nature. Theologians have called this Original Sin; and if those words mean that every human being has in one respect or another such a bias or tendency to evil, they do not stand for a mysterious doctrine but for an evident and vitally important fact. Our task is to relate that fact to belief in the divine government of the world; but it will assist us if we first enquire further into the ground of the fact in human nature and its place in the world process as our argument has led us to envisage this.

The point which here concerns us is this. Mind arises within the world process as one of its episodes; but it is a peculiar episode in two ways. First, it is peculiar because it is able to take the process in which it occurs within the embrace of its awareness and its comprehension. Viewed from one standpoint, a man is a trifling occurrence—a midget breathing and moving for a brief span in one corner of a universe overwhelmingly vast. Viewed from another standpoint, he is himself the master of that universe, able to comprehend it as it can never comprehend him, and bending the mighty forces of nature to serve his purposes. He tames the force of lightning, turning it on and off with a switch. He regulates the waves of ether, bidding them carry accounts of his very games round the globe. To his lightest whim the august energy of Nature must be subservient. There may be rational minds domiciled in other planets, or in stars and nebulae. On the planet called Earth such minds have appeared, and their achievements make even the suns look small. That is one way in which Mind is peculiar as an episode in the world process.

The other, which more concerns us now, is this. Till Mind appeared as an episode in the world process, all other episodes had value in potentiality only, not in actuality—so far at least as the process itself supplied the condition of its actualisation. In the sight of God, and it may be also of spirits other than those born in the world process, that process and its episodes had value. But with the coming of minds there came also for the first time episodes within the process supplying to other episodes the condition for the actualisation of their value. Here, even more than in the impressive achievements lately enumerated, is the supreme peculiarity and distinction of mind. The human mind is a focus of appreciation. It has knowledge of good and evil. The winning of that knowledge is called the Fall of Man, because acts, which before he won it were merely instinctive reactions to environment, become through that knowledge sins against the light. Again, because they are done against the light, they are done with a new degree of self-assertion. And, once more, because imagination is so potent to stimulate desire, there is an additional impulse to those acts. Man in so far as he is evil is worse than any animal; and in every man there is the bias or tendency to evil. We are now in a position to track this to its source.

Mind, as it occurs as an episode in the world-process, takes the form of finite minds. It is indeed confined within extremely narrow limitations. It cannot attain to any grasp of the true proportions and perspective of the world in which it is set. Certain things have a value for it and are its apparent good. There is no inherent and absolute necessity for this to be other than the real good; yet the probability of divergence is so great as to amount to certainty for all practical purposes. The finite, and indeed very narrowly limited, mind appreciates the gigantic fact of good and evil. But its limitations hinder it from apprehending the full significance of these, or the true nature of the various objects which present themselves as apparent goods. The mind by a necessary tendency of its own nature attaches more importance to values which find their actualisation in itself than to those which find it elsewhere; or to put it crudely, each man cares more about what seems to be good for him than about goods which he does not expect personally to enjoy. Even so far as he knows of these, they take a second place for him; and about many of them he knows nothing. So he becomes not only the subject of his own value judgements, which he can never cease to be, but also the centre and criterion of his own system of values, which he is quite unfit to be.

Accordingly, as man rose above sub-human forms of life through the development of mind within his psycho-physical organism as an increasingly dominant factor, he found himself self-centred. The animal also is self-centred. But in the animal this is an innocent state, because it is merely a given fact of nature; the animal self does not compare its actual condition with a conceived or imagined ideal; it is a consciousness but not a “self-distinguishing and self-seeking consciousness”. Consequently it is self-centred without being self-assertive. But as soon as consciousness advances to full self-consciousness, so that the self, distinguishing itself from its environment, not only chooses what appetites it shall satisfy but even what ends it shall pursue, self-centredness becomes self-assertion. The good-for-self is alone effectively apparent good, and good in a fuller sense, though recognised to be real, is relatively powerless as motive. It is not utterly necessary that this should be so; and therefore it is not true to say that God made man selfish, or predestined him to sin. But that it should be so was “too probable not to happen”; and it is true to say that God so made the world that man was likely to sin, and the dawn of moral self-consciousness was likely to be more of a “fall” than an ascent. Human sin was not a necessary episode in the divine plan; but was always so closely implicated in the divine plan that it must be held to fall within the divine purpose. To the problem thus presented we must return at a later stage.6

The individual members of human society are not mutually exclusive atoms of consciousness. Each is a partly self-determining, self-integrating system of experience; but the content of that experience is derived from environment. The part of that content with which we are now concerned is derived from social environment. We are, in part, reciprocally determining beings. We make each other what we are. Therefore the existence of one self-centred soul would spread an evil infection through all who come within its range of influence. This happens both positively by suggestion and negatively by repulsion. If A is self-centred, B tends to become so by imitation; but also B becomes so in self-defence. The instincts of gregariousness and of fear combine to produce the same result. And this process continues, so that A and B perpetually develop their own and one another’s self-centredness. Actual human society is to a large extent, though never completely, that network of competing selfishnesses, all kept in check by each one’s selfish fear of the others, which Glaucon describes in Plato’s Republic and which Hobbes made the basis of his political philosophy in the Leviathan.

This may, perhaps, be called an evolutionary account of the origin of moral evil. But it must be sharply distinguished from any theory of moral evil which accounts for it by reference to a survival of animal impulses into the rational stage of development. The centre of trouble is not the turbulent appetites, though they are troublesome enough, and the human faculty for imagination increases their turbulence. But the centre of trouble is the personality as a whole, which is self-centred and can only be wholesome and healthy if it is God-centred. This whole personality in action is the will; and it is the will which is perverted. Our primary need is not to control our passions by our purpose, but to direct our purpose itself to the right end. It is the form taken by our knowledge of good and evil that perverts our nature. We know good and evil, but know them amiss. We take them into our lives, but we mis-take them. The corruption is at the centre of rational and purposive life.

The suggestion which we have repudiated belongs to the phase of “faculty-psychology”. This presented the soul as a complex entity in which reason and passion exist side by side. Passion, according to this view, comes from our animal ancestors and is already strongly developed when reason appears; reason at first is feeble, and very slowly develops capacity to control passion; the devices of education aim at keeping passion in check while the development of reason is hastened. At last it may be hoped that reason will take complete control, and then all will be well.

Of course that picture is not wholly false. But it is more false than true, because it misses the most vital point. That point is that reason itself as it exists in us is vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves. That is why the very virtues of one generation lead to the miseries of the next; for they are contaminated with the evil principle, and it is truly said that “our righteousnesses are filthy rags”. We totally misconceive alike the philosophic and the practical problem of evil if we picture it as the winning of control over lawless and therefore evil passions by a righteous but insufficiently powerful reason or spirit. It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt.

And yet it cannot be said that the principle of selfhood is evil. To say that would be to accuse the constitution of the universe itself and therefore also God its Creator. Moreover it would be, for us at least, self-contradictory. For we have found that the essential condition of Good is the discovery by mind of itself in its object, which reaches its culmination in the love that binds different souls into the unity of perfect fellowship. If the highest good is found in personal relationships, it must be ludicrous to contend that persons or selves are inherently evil in principle. But the persons or selves which occur in the World Process are finite; they are extremely limited in range of apprehension. Their own well-being is dependent on the principle of the Whole in which they are no more than episodes; but this is not within their apprehension; if they so ordered their scale of values as to conform to it, that would seem to be a lucky accident which had occurred against all the balance of probability. Some of them at least must be expected to order that scale wrongly because of the falsified perspective due to their limited range of apprehension; and that will be enough, as we saw, to infect the race. It is still more likely that all will thus err, and then mutually infect with error one another. Because it was not necessary that we should err, we cannot say that our sin is itself God’s act; it is our fault, not His, in the first instance. But that we are finite selves is directly due to God’s act, and we cannot doubt that God foresaw the issues of conferring selfhood upon finite beings, so that sin falls within His purpose, and is even part of it, though it can not be said that He directly willed or wills it. What He faced was a probability so great as to be distinguishable only in thought from certainty. “I speak after the manner of men”; of course there is, for God’s eternal knowledge,7 no such thing as “probability” but apprehension of all reality in its ordered completeness. Yet that distinction in thought is important. For it means that God did not directly cause any man to sin.

The sin of each man is a new element in the World Process. It is what, being himself, he contributes to it. And its essence is not that he is a self, but that being a self he is self-centred. What matters to him bulks larger in his estimate of value than what matters equally or even more to others. He does not love his neighbour as himself, but allows himself to count for more in the direction of his attention, and therewith his life, than his neighbour does. It is not wicked to be finite; but it is so improbable as to be beyond all reasonable estimate of practical possibility that finite selves, if left to themselves, should not be wicked.

When once the spiritual principle of evil had established itself through the adoption of themselves as centres of their systems of value by all, or by any, selves, its calamitous authority would spread apace. Each would infect, and be infected by, the others. The great system of mutual support in evil would be established, which Dr. Inge describes as “co-operative guilt with limited liability”.8 As was noted above, it spreads itself in two different ways, both by positive suggestion, and by putting on the defensive those who find that their neighbours, being self-centred, will attack them if interest so prompts. The young soul, still plastic and rather timidly making its adventure in the world, sees that others fend for themselves, and resolves to do the like; it also finds that in a world so conducted it is likely to be overwhelmed unless it does the like. However small its own perversion, resulting from its own finitude, may have been, it is firmly rooted in self as its centre by its intercourse with others who were perhaps at the outset in their own outlook and estimate of the goods of life no more perverted than itself. And in each this process is intensified by the activity of imagination, which not only stimulates desire beyond its proper province, so that it becomes lust, but also, being specially responsive to fear, exaggerates the peril proceeding from the rivalries and antagonisms of the competing individuals and groups, poisoning all thought and feeling with rancour and bitterness.

This is the account of that indubitable fact, called by theologians Original Sin, which coheres with our general account of the World Process and of man’s place within it. Because mind when it appears in that process is finite, and even narrowly restricted in scope, it attaches undue importance to those goods and evils which it apprehends as affecting itself; its perspectives are falsified; what is near at hand looks larger than it is, and what is far off, smaller than it is. This initial aberration of (probably) every finite mind is magnified by the activity of imagination and by the reciprocity of social influence till the Apostolic catalogue is no exaggerated account of the state of man: “foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another”.9

It is not suggested that this is a complete account of human nature or of any actual phase of human society. But the evil aspect of human nature and society is all that has been said and more. It is no solution of the difficulty which such a view presents to Theism, to say that there is also much good in human nature. If the world is the creation of Almighty Righteousness, we should expect to find good in abundance; that causes no perplexity; but the occurrence of any, even minute, instance of evil causes great perplexity.

With that perplexity, however, we are not yet in a position to deal. Our present endeavour is to apprehend with substantial accuracy the actual moral situation of mankind. And for this purpose it is necessary to allow its fair place to the good that is in human nature despite its perversions, and (no less important) to those potentialities for good which are bound up with the very source and occasion of evil.

First, then, we notice that the earliest experience of the child is almost always predominantly good. The love for its mother which is part of the child’s first conscious apprehension is almost purely good. It is not a perfect good, because it is a love wherein from the outset self-interest plays a part. It is in some respects truly disinterested, but is also in a certain sense self-centred.10 It is filiva—the love of friendship, where the well-being of the self is an element in the complex of motives determining the friendly relation, not ajgavph—the love of utter self-giving and self-forgetfulness. Therefore it can be stifled and quenched; for if no kindness meets it, its element of self-regard will turn acid within it and corrode it till it vanishes away. ÆAgavph cannot be so quenched; for as in it the self has been freely given from the outset, the absence of kindness only lets it prove its quality more perfectly. It is necessary to notice this contrast here, not in order to cast a blight upon the loveliness of a child’s love, but to remind ourselves both of its possible decay and of the more splendid love which is alone divine and safe from evil infection.

That earliest experience, being good, creates in the soul a tendency which is not easily quite obliterated. And if the home be happy, and early years are spent in a society where love prevails, the good tendency may often be established so firmly that nothing can now prevent its becoming the controlling determinant of character throughout life. Yet the soul will still have its own element of perversion due to self-centredness, and is inevitably hardened in this by the play upon it of the selfishness in the world, from which even its early home is sure not to have been quite exempt. Nor can it be said that every soul trained in a loving home is less selfish than every soul trained under the pressure of grinding selfishness. There are some whose natural responsiveness to the goodness and beauty of the world gives them a centre outside themselves, which is only established the more firmly in resistance to the shocks administered by selfish surroundings.

“Centre” is a spatial, even a geometrical term. Its main suggestion in this context is clear enough, but we must not be misled by its limitations. A circle can only have one centre, but a soul can have two or more. If precision of geometrical metaphor is to be more nearly observed we may then speak of these as foci. Certainly it is the fact that very few, if any, lives are wholly self-centred; that could only happen through great spiritual mutilation, a mutilation which is perhaps impossible. For though our reason, as empirically active, is perverted, yet the essential principle of reason is incorruptible, and those mystics are probably right who hold that in every soul there is a divine spark which never consents to sin.11 Life cannot be fully integrated about the self as centre; it can only be fully integrated when it becomes God-centred. For God is the real centre of the real world; His purpose is its controlling principle; only in Him therefore can all creatures find a centre which brings them all to harmony with one another and with themselves. But God is immanent in the world, making Himself apprehensible through the Truth, the Beauty, the Goodness which call forth from men the allegiance of discipleship. Consequently there is a constant lure to every soul to find itself at home with Him, and this influence works in the world side by side with that influence of inter-reticulated evil which was earlier described. The soul which all through life is fashioning itself by the exercise of its mental freedom under the pressure of all these forces, good and evil, pursues its difficult and commonly wayward course, with always some element of self-seeking, and almost always some element also of sheer self-giving.

In the process of history the pressure of self-seeking and the impulse of self-giving tend increasingly to converge, making outward conformity to standards of sound morality easier, but also for many souls making progress in inward and spiritual morality more difficult. Selfishness, for its own sake, puts a check upon its expression in acts. If each fights hard for his own hand, no man’s hand will retain what it has grasped. Covetousness itself will prompt a prohibition of stealing; for the thief who ignores his neighbour’s property rights desires to be protected in his own. As selfishness learns by experience it attains to prudence, and those who zealously follow the best policy will about as often as not be honest. Outward morality is thus encouraged even by the immoral principle itself. Some genuine progress is thus made; but to an almost equal extent conscience is confused and the edge of its witness blunted.

Moral and social progress is, no doubt, mainly due to the activity of positive good influences. But it is of great importance, both practical and theoretical, to notice that lower motives, and even that principle of self-centredness which is the very fount of moral evil, play their part in the empirical development of good. Very often the wisdom of a trainer of character or a reformer of institutions is shown in the extent to which he can secure that the lower motives support the higher in promoting right conduct. Often the elimination of self-centredness is best assisted through the stage of enlisting it in support of what public spirit and even the highest claims of absolute morality require. Few actions are guided by one motive alone, and the vital question in practice is not whether the motive of an action was noble or mean, but whether the just order of priority among motives has been maintained, so that when divergence arises the higher check and control the lower, and the lower do not control or check the higher. The argument, frequent on the lips of a certain kind of moral idealist, that virtuous conduct sustained by fear of the consequences of vice is worthless, only proves that he who uses it is a bungler. Even if nothing sustained the virtuous conduct except fear, it would still be better than vicious conduct, both because it is beneficial instead of harmful to society and because its own excellence at least has the opportunity of making its appeal to the conscience of the person acting, so that imperceptibly another and better foundation for the virtuous conduct may be fashioned. Moreover, impulses which are refused any expression in conduct may atrophy, provided that the energy represented by them is utilised in other ways. It is quite possible for character to improve under the pressure of disciplinary sanctions, and for self-regard to be partly undermined by appeal to self-regarding motives.

Even more evident is the improvement in social relationships which may be assisted by the considerations of an enlightened selfishness. To a quite appreciable extent respect for law rests on the need of every citizen for the law’s protection. So through the action of self-regarding motives men may be led to an appreciation of justice. So far as civilisation needs prisons and a police force, the general good is served through appeal to particular interest.

Yet when all this is admitted, it is still true that the self-regarding principle is a precarious support of moral progress, and that a point is reached in connexion with each successive phase of development in individual or society, at which it becomes a barrier to further advance. Where it exists—which is everywhere—the practical statesman and the practical pastor must alike recognise it as a fact and allow for it in the plans which they make to assist social or moral progress; they will try to enlist it as an ally in an advance that is really dictated by higher principles than itself. But man cannot be saved, nor either individual or society attain to perfection, except by the total elimination of self-centredness. Only by truly disinterested love does man enter into completeness of fellowship with God.

That goal, it is clear, will never be reached by the aid of self-regarding motives. Indeed the inevitable utilisation of those motives for the earlier stages of progress constitutes a special difficulty for the final stages—a fact which has led rigorists to make the attempt to crush the self-centred motives from the outset. The actual effects of rigorism in ministering to spiritual pride are evidence that this method is unsound. Consider the spiritual rancour that took a large part of the place belonging of right to charity in the soul of Jerome! The effort to crush self-concern by exaggerated austerities only leads to transference of concern from the self subjected to discipline to the self imposing it. There is a place for austerity in a wise self-discipline, and most of us would be the better for a fuller use of this aid to progress. But it is no more than an aid. It may be that all men need it, and even that the best are those who can and do use it most. But fullness of life is in itself good, and all austerity impoverishes this to some extent. In any case, austerity must be temperately adjusted to the soul’s capacity to accept it, not forcibly imposed by one nucleus of desires or aspirations upon another.

Moreover, it is constantly to be remembered that, as has been already said, it is self-centredness that is evil, not selfhood. Selfhood is a pre-condition of all true good. There can be no discovery by mind of itself or its kin in its object unless mind be active as a self or conscious system of experience; and this, which is the essential condition of value, only reaches its completeness in the personal relationship of different selves. The self therefore is not to be destroyed; its need is to understand and feel its creatureliness, its dependence, and its own subordinate place in the entire scheme of things. But this it cannot do by its own effort. So long as the self retains initiative it can only fix itself upon itself as centre. Its hope of deliverance is to be uprooted from that centre and drawn to find its centre in God, the Spirit of the Whole. Towards this it is brought by all in which the Spirit of the Whole is manifest as such, by Truth and Beauty and Goodness. In its response to these it is in some measure drawn from its self-centredness and subjected to the Spirit of the Whole who is the one true centre for that self as for all else. Far gone as human nature is in corruption and perversion, it is not so far as to have become insensitive to all forms of goodness; otherwise redemption and recovery were impossible, and impossible also the heroism and self-forgetful love which every one of us has witnessed. But the response, though real, is not always pure, and its influence is seldom, if ever, all-pervasive. The scientist who labours devotedly in the service of truth is sometimes very jealous about the credit for his discoveries; the artist who is true to his own ideal of beauty is not always generous in appreciation of other artists; the philanthropist who sacrifices ease and comfort in a life of service is sometimes extremely self-willed as regards the kind of service which he or she shall render. And any one of these may be an exacting member of the home-circle.

If deliverance of the self from its self-centredness is to be complete it cannot be through response to any partial manifestations of the Spirit of the Whole “by divers portions and in divers manners”.12 That Spirit must personally appear before the self in a form truly apprehensible by that self. Only such a manifestation can effectively claim the submission of the self in all its being. Whether such a manifestation of the Spirit of the Whole has been given is not a question which Natural Theology can answer. But Natural Theology can, and as I think must, declare that if, and only if, such a revelation has been given, finite spirits may find there the cure for the ills of finitude; remaining and rejoicing in their finitude they will then accept their own place in the economy of the universe, bound to one another by a love which is indeed the fulfilment of all morality, but which has its source beyond those relations of the finite which are the sphere of morality, in that “Love which moves the sun and all the stars”.

  • 1. Cf. Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion. “A very small part of this great system, during a very short time, is very imperfectly discovered to us; and do we thence pronounce concerning the origin of the whole?”
  • 2. See supra, Lecture VIII.
  • 3. We are here concerned only with the former question. The latter is taken up at the conclusion of our enquiry, in Lecture XX.
  • 4. oujdevpote noei¤ a[neu fantavsmato~ h; fuchv, Aristotle, De Anima, 431 a 16, 17.
  • 5. Cf. Lecture IX.
  • 6. See Lecture XIX.
  • 7. Sc. as distinguished from His temporal knowledge. We find ourselves obliged to attribute both modes of experience and knowledge to God; see Lecture XVII, specially pp. 444–448.
  • 8. Inge, Speculum Animae, p. 35.
  • 9. Epistle to Titus iii. 3.
  • 10. See infra, p. 392.
  • 11. This must be read in connexion with what is said on pp. 367 and 368.
  • 12. Epistle to the Hebrews i. 1.
From the book: